As the Imperial Japanese Army swept across China and South Asia at World War II's outset -- closing all of China's seaports -- more than 200,000 Chinese laborers embarked on a seemingly impossible task: to cut a 700-mile overland route -- which would be called the Burma Road -- from the southeast Chinese city of Kunming to Lashio, Burma. But with the fall of Burma in early 1942, the road was severed, and it became the task of American General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell to reopen it, while keeping China supplied by air-lift from India and simultaneously driving the Japanese out of Burma as the first step of the Allied offensive toward Japan.
In gripping prose, Donovan Webster follows the adventures of the American "Hump" pilots who flew hair-raising missions to make food-drops in China; tells the true story that inspired the famous film The Bridge on the River Kwai; and recounts the grueling jungle operations of Merrill's Marauders and the British Chindit Brigades. Interspersed with portraits of the American General Stilwell, the exceedingly eccentric British General Orde Wingate, and the mercurial Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, The Burma Road vividly recreates the sprawling, sometimes hilarious, often harrowing, and still largely unknown stories of one of the greatest chapters of World War II.
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Bil Donovan is a fashion illustrator whose work has appeared in various publications and advertising campaigns worldwide. His many clients include Neiman Marcus, Estée Lauder, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Mercedes-Benz. He is the author of Advanced Fashion Drawing: Lifestyle Illustration. He resides in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpt from The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II by Donovan Webster. Copyright © 2003 by Donovan Webster. Published in October, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
WHEN I MEET THEM at their reunions and in their homes, the Old Soldiers warn me not even to go looking.
To a man, every one of them believes the road they hacked across India's steep Himalayan passes and down through the steaming jungles of Burma into China during World War II has disappeared, destroyed by time. They say the route itself exists only as a memory, that the road's two stringy lanes-now more than sixty years old-certainly have been devoured by landslides and rain and swampy jungle vegetation.
But now, step after step-and in the cool of a mid-January morning-my feet are moving up the same gravel pike the Old Soldiers have cautioned me about. I'm walking between walls of jungle that rise from the roadside like green tapestries a hundred feet tall; setting off for the places where the Old Soldiers' friends died, their own sweat fell, and-perhaps more than anything-where the nightmares that still find them were seared into place so firmly that, when they're jolted awake in their beds at night, they can still taste the acrid gunpowder smoke and feel the jungle's leeches beneath their damp cotton uniforms.
In the morning light, the pavement ahead crooks hard right, twisting back on itself and disappearing over the brow of the next forested hill. Here, near the road's beginning, just a few miles northeast of the crowded Indian ghetto of Ledo, the road's original gravel and asphalt is pitted and broken. Its shoulders disintegrate at the forest's edges, and in some places potholes stretch across the pavement's width, leaving it striped with breaks.
Still-contrary to what the Old Soldiers believe-the road exists. Thirty feet wide and snaking ahead beneath mature trees dripping with vines, it bends uphill toward green-draped mountains. It slides past barracks for Indian army border patrols and the jungle huts of tribal natives, its course run by motorbikes, buses full of coalfield workers, and trucks hauling illegal harvests of teakwood, despite such cutting having been outlawed years ago. This place is so far at the world's edge, it seems, nobody cares what goes on here.
FRIDAY MORNING, ten o'clock. Above me, inside a cloudless sky, the sun is clearing the treetops, its yellow footfall dapples the roadbed. The air is moist and sixty-five degrees. Jungle mists spill from the forest, their faint fog softening the sunlight around me. Through the surrounding trees, gray parakeets dart among branches. An oxcart creaks past, carrying sections of a teak trunk lashed to its bed. One of India's sacred bulls wanders the road just ahead: it's white furred-with one of its horns painted glossy green, the other yellow-and it seems supremely unconcerned by the vehicles that swerve to avoid it.
I stretch my back, having spent last night on a plywood bed in the Hotel Raj, a toilet-and-cold-shower-down-the-hall cell off a cobblestone bazaar in Ledo's crowded downtown. All night the locals came out to stare at the hotel's second-floor balcony from the plaza below, shouting greetings to me, the visitor.
"Hello, American!" they'd yell. Then they'd stand on the cobblestones and gaze upward, expecting me to step onto the narrow balcony and wave. Across the alley, in a small and dingy restaurant, a fire flickered in the mud oven, heating curries and illuminating the restaurant's soot-blackened walls. A handful of kids shouted to me as they played netless badminton in the alley. For a half-hour, my only response to the welcome squad below curled from the air vents of my room, as smoke from burning mosquito coils drifted into the night sky.
Finally, realizing I couldn't ignore them and expect much peace, I went downstairs and played badminton with a twelve-year-old girl named Djela. She was four feet tall and skinny, her shiny black hair cropped at her jaw. She had dark skin and deep black eyes, and she was all smiles and "Where you come from?"
Djela and her family were also new to town, she said. Six months earlier, they'd moved into a room up the street from Bangladesh. Djela's father, she said, had relocated to Ledo to be a laborer in the town's coal mine. Then she handed me one of the two broken-stringed badminton racquets she was carrying, and we began to smack a little plastic shuttlecock up and down the alley over an imaginary net.
After a few minutes, I thanked Djela for the game. Then I walked through the spice shop that was the Hotel Raj's ground floor-watched like a zoo animal the whole time-and returned to my second-floor room.
"Hello, American" continued to ring in the alley for hours after I'd slid tight the bolt on my door, climbed beneath my mosquito net, and blown out the candle that was my room's only light.
NOW, IN THE MORNING, I stare up the road, then lift my pack to continue on. Wooden telephone and electric poles from World War II-glass insulators still in place-hopscotch the pavement, their webs of wires long gone. Back in late 1942, when this road was first being laid by American engineer battalions, no Allied commander or soldier would have believed that, over the coming twenty-seven months, as they chiseled this track over mountains and slapped it across swamps at a mile per day, the Japanese would devil them for most every foot. Before the road was complete, Japanese snipers and artillery shells (and disease and accidents) would kill more than one American soldier for each of the road's eleven hundred miles.
Back at the road's beginnings in 1942 and '43, they also wouldn't have believed that for every Allied combat casualty in the war's China-Burma-India theater of operations, fourteen more soldiers would be evacuated sick or dead from malaria, dysentery, cholera, infections, jungle rot, and a previously unknown infection called brush typhus. They wouldn't have believed that, before the road's journey was over, the theater's beloved but irascible commander-the American General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell-would be removed; that their eccentric and death-defying special-forces leader-Lt. General Orde Wingate of the British army-would be killed in a shocking accident; and that, perhaps worst of all, the road they fought for and died to build would be deemed obsolete even as it was being finished. Before he was done there, Stilwell could do little more than lean on the scrap of dog-Latin he'd made famous as his motto: Illegitimati non Carborundum. He translated it as "Don't let the bastards grind you down."
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